Comparative genomics and trait evolution in Cleomaceae, a model family for ancient polyploidy

Bergh, Erik van den


As more and more species have been sequenced, evidence has been piling up for a fascinating phenomenon that seems to occur in all plant lineages: paleopolyploidy. Polyploidy has historically been a much observed and studied trait, but until recently it was assumed that polyploids were evolutionary dead-ends due to their sterility. However, many studies since the 1990’s have challenged this notion by finding evidence for ancient genome duplications in many genomes of current species. This lead to the observation that all seed plants share at least one ancestral polyploidy event. Another polyploidy event has been proven to lie at the base of all angiosperms, further signifying the notion that ancient polyploidy is widespread and common. These findings have led to questions regarding the apparent disadvantages that can be observed in a first generation polyploid. If these disadvantages can be overcome however, duplication of a genome also presents an enormous potential for evolutionary novelty. Duplicated copies of genes are able to acquire changes that can lead to specialization of the duplicated pair into two functions (subfunctionalization) or the development of one copy towards an entirely new function (neofunctionalization).

Currently, most research towards polyploidy has focused on the economically and scientifically important Brassicaceae family containing the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana and many crops such as cabbage, rapeseed, broccoli and turnip. In this thesis, I lay the foundations for the expansion of this scope to the Cleomaceae, a widespread cosmopolitan plant family and a sister family of Brassicaceae. The species within Cleomaceae are diverse and exhibit many scientifically interesting traits. They are also in a perfect position phylogenetically to draw comparisons with the much more studied Brassicaceae. I describe the Cleomaceae and their relevance to polyploid research in more detail in the Introduction. I then describe the important first step towards setting up the genetic framework of this family with the sequencing of Tarenaya hassleriana in Chapter 1.

In Chapter 2, I have studied the effects of polyploidy on the development of C4 photosynthesis by comparing the transcriptome of C3 photosynthesis based species Tarenaya hassleriana with the C4 based Gynandropsis gynandra. C4 photosynthesis is an elaboration of the more common C3 form of photosynthesis that concentrates CO2 in specific cells leading to decreased photorespiration by the RuBisCO and higher photosynthetic efficieny in low CO2 environments. I find that polyploidy has not led to sub- or neofunctionalization towards the development of this trait, but instead find evidence for another important phenomenon in postpolyploid evolution: the dosage balance hypothesis. This hypothesis states that genes which are dependent on specific dosage levels of their products will be maintained in duplicate; any change in their function would lead to dosage imbalance which would have deleterious effects on their pathway. We show that most genes involved in photosynthesis have returned to single copy in G. gynandra and that the changes leading to C4 have mostly taken place at the expression level confirming current assumptions on the development of this trait.

In Chapter 3, I have studied the effects of polyploidy on an important class of plant defence compounds: glucosinolates. These compounds, sometimes referred to as ‘mustard oils’, play an important role in the defence against herbivores and have radiated widely in Brassicaceae to form many different ‘flavors’ to deter specific herbivores. I show that in Cleomaceae many genes responsible for these compounds have benefited from the three rounds of polyploidy that T. hassleriana has undergone and that many duplicated genes have been retained. We also show that more than 75% is actively expressed in the plant, proving that the majority of these duplications has an active function in the plant.

Finally, in Chapter 4 I investigate a simple observation made during experiments with T. hassleriana in the greenhouse regarding the variation in flower colour between different individuals: some had pink flowers and some purple. Using LC-PDA mass spectrometry we find that the two colours are caused by different levels of two anthocyanin pigments, with cyanidin dominating in the purple flowers and pelargonidin being more abundant in pink flowers. Through sequence comparison and synteny analysis between A. thaliana and T. hassleriana we find the orthologs of the genes involved in this pathway. Using a Genotyping by Sequencing method on a cross between these two flower colours, we produce a collection of SNP markers on the reference genome. With these SNPs, we find two significant binary trait loci, one of which corresponds to the location of the F3’H ortholog which performs the conversion of a pelargonidin precursor to a cyanidin precursor.

In the General Conclusion, I combine all findings of the previous chapters and explain how they establish part of a larger species framework to study ancient polyploidy in angiosperms. I then put forth what these findings can mean for possible future research and the directions that are worth to be explored further.